Some American cigar aficionados have long felt aggrieved that they can't legally buy Cuban cigars, due to the long-standing US trade embargo on Cuban products. In the light of recent news reports on illegal "Cuban" cigar factories--chinchals--cigar lovers in Cuba may be feeling the same way.
The worldwide economic crisis has affected the long-struggling Communist island republic, with many Cubans looking for work. Since there's always a market for fine Cuban cigars--or any cigar that can make itself look like same--some enterprising, if unscrupulous, residents of the world's cigar capital have decided to trade on that national prestige by starting illegal, unauthorized cigar factories.
Why "illegal"? Well, since Cuba's political/economic system is Communist, the government directly oversees--and owns--every sector of the economy. We in the United States may sometimes worry that our government is too close to this or that business, or to business in general; in Cuba the government is business. (Some conservatives have complained in recent months that this or that government program--a return to the top marginal tax rate of 2001, for example--represents the return of "socialism." Compared to Cuba, though--well, there is no comparison.)
When the Cuban government makes the Cuban cigars, sets the price for the Cuban cigars, and (potentially) even tells consumers that it's their patriotic duty to buy Cuban cigars, that same government gets a little testy in the face of competition--as all monopolies tend to do. Only this monopoly can send people directly to jail. And given the lack of due process or prison-condition oversight in Cuba--Amnesty International, along with other human rights groups, continues to protest the island's treatment of detainees and dissidents--that's a rawer deal than even the worst corporate criminals in the United States get.
Given that the penalties for challenging the government monopoly on cigar-making are so high, why would any Cuban take the risk? Well, the worldwide demand for Cuban cigars completely outstrips the somewhat modest production. (And the Cuban government is likely savvy enough to keep it that way.) Knock-off cigars that can claim the label "Cuban" will always find buyers, and thus sales are healthy--especially since they sell, in some cases, for rates as low as one-fifth that of a box of "official" Cuban cigars.
With booming sales, these companies (as long as they remain off Castro's radar) are able to offer excellent pay to those hardly souls who take the risk of working for them. Recent news reports have them earning as much as, or more than, the government-owned cigar company (Habanos S.A.) can afford to pay. No wonder, then, that the Cuban government finds itself seizing over a thousand boxes a month of wanna-be Habanos cigars.
But life may be about to get a little more complicated for those who work at the chinchals (which literally means just "little factory"--you find the word used frequently in books about the history of the cigar industry, to describe the mom-and-pop cigar makers of the early part of the twentieth century). Habanos S.A., like so many companies, is facing declining sales, with last year's figures down by three percent.
Cuba's centralized government does not need economic competition at a time like this. Unless whispers of a possible relaxation of anti-Cuban U.S. laws prove true--and some political commentators are strongly convinced that it will--Habanos S.A. can't look for any easy or immediate resolutions to its sales problems. The idea of punishing the competition may seem more and more appealing as time goes on. Already, the Cubans have introduced a special seal designed to distinguish real Cuban cigars from the would-bes.
In the meantime, U.S. cigar smokers who try these fake Cuban cigars often find the experience somewhat lacking, according to many online reviews and discussion-board posts. All the more reason to buy cigars from a trusted, well-known source.
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